Imagine, if you will, this delicious storyline to the 2023 Masters: One of the 18 players from LIV Golf competing this week at Augusta National gets the green jacket slipped over his shoulders early Sunday evening inside the Butler Cabin.
Does a storyline in golf get any juicier than that?
There isn’t a more fascinating scenario to this week’s Masters than how the players from LIV fare, because there isn’t a more polarizing topic in golf at the moment.
Lines have been drawn in the sand bunkers since the inception of LIV last year with a number of high-profile, highly ranked players signing on with the Saudi-backed tour for countless millions and thus being banned from competing on the PGA Tour.
Verbal barbs have been volleyed about between LIV players and those whose allegiance is firmly aligned with the PGA Tour.
This week’s Masters, which is not banning LIV players who are otherwise qualified for the field from competing, marks the first event in 2023 in which there is comingling among the PGA Tour and players from LIV Golf.
None of the four major championships has followed suit with the PGA Tour and banned LIV players.
Among the 18 LIV players competing at the Masters, six are past champions — Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel.
The others include reigning British Open champion Cam Smith, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Abraham Ancer, Talor Gooch, Jason Kokrak, Kevin Na, Joaquin Niemann, Louis Oosthuizen, Mito Pereira, Thomas Pieters and Harold Varner III.
Curtis Strange, an ESPN analyst, wondered aloud this past week whether any of the LIV players have a real chance to win.
“Some of these players haven’t played a lot of competitive golf, so how sharp can they be from a player standpoint,’’ Strange said. “It’s not because they play on the LIV Tour, the Asian Tour, the European Tour, whatever, it’s just they haven’t played as much and as often as the [Scottie] Schefflers of the world and Cam Youngs.’’
Strange was referring to the infrequent schedule LIV plays and the fact its events are 54 holes instead of 72.
“I think for us, internally, there’s a lot of chatter going around about, ‘These guys don’t play real golf anymore,’ ” Smith told reporters this past week ahead of the LIV event outside Orlando. “I think it’s B.S. to be honest, and we just want to show people that. I think it is important for us [LIV players] to go there, really show a high standard of golf which we know we’re all capable of.
“Most of us will get four cracks at it this year [in the majors], and hopefully we get maybe a win out of it.’’
Smith has finished in the top 10 in four of his past five starts at the Masters, including a tie for third last year and a tie for second in 2020.
Asked what he thinks the reception will be like from the members and PGA Tour players at Augusta this week, Smith said, “I’m really not sure, to be honest. I hope that it’s fine. I’ve had a great career around Augusta, and I hope I haven’t pissed anyone off. I guess we’ll wait and see.’’
Niemann, a 24-year-old from Chile, said he relishes the rivalry that has unfolded with the PGA Tour making LIV players out to be villains.
“I think it’s going to be more fun knowing that they hate us,” Niemann said in an interview with Golf.com. “I think there is a big rivalry right now between the Tour and LIV.’’
The first true litmus test to how awkward things may be at Augusta figures to come Tuesday night when the annual Champions Dinner takes place in the clubhouse.
“The Champions Dinner has nothing to do with myself or any other person in that room except for Scottie Scheffler — that’s his dinner,’’ Reed told reporters recently.
“The Champions Dinner is going to be obviously something that’s talked about,” Tiger Woods said recently. “We as a whole need to honor Scottie. Scottie’s the winner. It’s his dinner. So, making sure that Scottie gets honored correctly but also realizing the nature of what has transpired and the people that have left, just where our situations are either legally, emotionally. There’s a lot there.”
Mickelson said he has “no expectations” about what the reception at Augusta will be like for the LIV players.
“A lot of the people there that are playing and competing in the Masters are friends for decades, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again,” he said.
Added Scheffler: “With Augusta National being such a special place and with the history of the game and whatnot … I think we can put all our stuff aside and just get together for a fun meal, all in a room together and just kind of celebrate the game of golf and Augusta National and just hang out.”